Why the Atlanta Falcons Are the Frontrunners of the NFC

Clay CunninghamCorrespondent IJuly 8, 2009

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA - MAY 9: Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons attempts a pass during minicamp at the Falcons Complex on May 9, 2009 in Flowery Branch, Georgia. (Paul Abell/Getty Images)

Last season, they stunned the NFL, making an inconceivable playoff run just one year removed from one of the most disastrous campaigns in NFL history.

Yet based on early season projections, most "experts" would be further surprised if the Atlanta Falcons pushed things to the next level by reaching the Super Bowl.

They shouldn't be.

Last year, the Falcons possessed a very good offense, seemingly missing just one key component that would elevate them to greatness. Well, that component came this offseason with the acquisition of ageless wonder tight end Tony Gonzalez, a move that made the already strong Falcons offense (sixth in yardage, 10th in points in '08) arguably the league's most complete unit.

This move could prove to work wonders for Gonzalez. His pairing with Roddy White (2,584 yards, 13 TDs the past two seasons) marks the first time in his illustrious career he will have a consistent and proven wideout to take pressure off him.

This move is also good for Michael Jenkins, a receiver better suited to be the No. 3 target of the Falcon passing game.

The improvement to an already good aerial attack will also take pressure off a great running game. Michael Turner was a revelation last season, but he touched the ball over 400 times last season including the playoffs. Such a large intake is never good for a running back's longevity.

Not only will the improved passing game soften Turner's work load, it will also force teams to play more honestly and help create running lanes for him to potentially improve on last year's 1,700-yard season.

Oh, and the Falcons are also aided by one of the league's better backups in Jerious Norwood.

Of course, if Atlanta wants to take the next step, much of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of Matt Ryan, the 2008 Rookie of the Year. Ryan showed veteran poise throughout his rookie season, not only with his production but also with the way he restored hope to a hopeless franchise.

He (with a large assist from Turner and first-year coach Mike Smith) turned what seemed like it would be an extensive project and produced instant results for an organization in desperate need of them after feeling the sting of Michael Vick and champion weasel Bobby Petrino.

Seeing as Ryan's rookie year would be good for most veterans, what reason is there to think a full year's experience, mixed with the addition of the greatest tight end of all time, won't help him take his game to another dimension?

One squabble people will have with Atlanta is that they don't have a championship-caliber defense, pointing out they were ranked 24th in the league last season. While I fully acknowledge this isn't the NFC's best defense, it's better than that ranking would let on.

While the 24th overall ranking isn't very impressive, the Falcons finished a respectable 11th in points allowed. If they score as many points as they are capable of, having the league's 11th-ranked scoring defense won't seem like much of a detriment—especially not when elevated passing downs allow John Abraham and his 16.5 sacks from a year ago to tee off on opposing quarterbacks.

But knowing there was room to improve, the Falcon brass wisely spent seven of their eight draft picks on defense. Most notable was their first round pick of defensive tackle Peria Jerry. Jerry could prove to be a great accompanying piece for Abraham, as well as a springboard to former first-round pick Jamaal Anderson, who has disappointed in his first two seasons.

There are several teams in the NFC who are capable of making a run for the Super Bowl, but Atlanta is the only one of them without a glaring weakness. Whether it's a lack of receivers (New York, Chicago), questions at quarterback (Carolina, Minnesota), injury-prone stars (Philadelphia), or potential conflicts with crucial players (Arizona), there are plenty of contenders conflicted with problems the Falcons simply don't have.

This team reminds me a bit of the 2006 Bears, in the sense they came out of nowhere the year before and just needed an extra year's boost to elevate themselves to an elite level. I predicted a Super Bowl appearance (albeit a biased one) then, and with the addition of Tony Gonzalez and an improved defense, I'm calling it for this Atlanta squad.

Come to me in February and tell me I was wrong (unless they get to the Super Bowl by beating Chicago; in that case, stay the hell away from me).